In the middle of her set with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Jenn Wasner of the indie-rock duo Wye Oak turned to acknowledge the young people behind her, noting that they are “the superior human beings that [are] going to save our miserable species!” All joking aside, at their March 21st Merkin Hall at Kaufman Music Center performance, which closed out the Ecstatic Music Festival season, the young singers of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus proved yet again that the future of music is in capable hands. While all Ecstatic shows feature one-night-only collaborations, this iteration seemed particularly rich because collaboration is the Brooklyn Youth Chorus’ bread and butter. Both on their own and in collaborative ventures, the chorus continually strives to break down any and all musical boundaries through their unparalleled virtuosity.
The program opened with the world premiere of Owen Pallett’s “Cyclops,” or what he described as a “fourteen minute nightmare.” He seemed to be largely referring to the text (by himself and Fan Wu), which utilizes various depictions of the Cyclops from Homer to Euripides, intertwined with aspects of modern ideology. After “You!” a hushed opening accusation, “Cyclops” alternates between homophonic delivery and soaring melody over underlying textures. Pallet asks the singers to draw upon all aspects of their training—repeated scalar figures reminiscent of vocal etudes, rapidly stacked chords, and a gentle doo-wop bounce, just to name a few. Amidst the density of the dark unaccompanied epic, the ensemble’s most remarkable feat was both the clarity of text and tone and the conviction of their delivery. Lines such as “I cleave and tear and serve to my teeth / A feast of human flesh” were sung with such precision that the power of fifty young singers felt almost intentionally unnerving.
The next collaboration shifted gears entirely as the chorus joined forces with singer-songwriter Alev Lenz to perform a set of four of her songs. “Aimee Mann” and “I Am Winter” featured interwoven syllabic patterns and text fragments, first with driving soul, then in a gentle waltz. The second half of the set featured what Lenz described as two depictions of luring one into destruction, the first male and the second female. “Splendid Soldiers,” the album version of Lenz’s Black Mirror hit “Fall Into Me,” showcased her own hauntingly compelling voice, with its dark and twisted melody and lyrics set over a hazy reverberating backdrop. The highlight of the set was the final number, “The Chair,” a ninety-second up-tempo tune. Here the overlapping patterns—Lenz’s spoken words, and the chorus’s poppy melodic fragments—resulted in a catchy groove where all textures enhanced each other and produced ear-worms that remained in my head long after the performance.
The second half of the program brought together Wye Oak and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus for a set of five songs loosely tied together on themes of alienation, loneliness, and misunderstanding. As Wasner explained while talking on stage with WNYC’s John Schaefer, the set featured some re-arrangements of existing Wye Oak songs while others were entirely new ventures. “My Signal,” from Wye Oak’s 2018 album “The Louder I Call, the Faster it Runs,” featured the Brooklyn Youth Chorus instead of the original string quartet. This version, with unaccompanied voices, generated a heightened focus and precision, fully utilizing a limited palette of colors through different forms of shading and texture. Once we had gently settled into this world, the piano, drums, and electronics entered and the box of crayons suddenly burst open. The new driving energy combined with the chorus’s introspective lyrics (“Who are you? Who am I? Where are we? What’s happened to us?) created a satisfyingly upbeat take on questions of human existence.
“Spitting Image” used a similar pulsing drive as Wasner and the chorus took turns singing the anthem-like melody. Wasner and Andrew Stack both picked up guitars for “Sky Witness,” which allowed the chorus to shine through hocket-like textures, quiet glissandi and intricately rhythmic text settings, once again highlighting the full range of their technique. “It Was Not Natural,” also from Wye Oak’s 2018 album, showcased Wasner and Stack alone, in a stripped down version of the electronic-pop hit. In its new form it became more of a meditative ballad where Wasner’s voice could soar to new heights. The final song, “AEIOU” (no relation to composer and Ecstatic Music Festival curator Judd Greenstein’s identically-titled work for Roomful of Teeth) summed up the set about alienation and misunderstanding by looking at the inadequacy of language.
On this program, the members of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus were tasked with singing about eating human flesh, destruction, and human alienation, yet at no point did these disheartening topics seem to deter them. Rather, the collaborative evening highlighted the professionalism of the young singers and their ability to master highly-varied complex repertoire. As the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Alev Lenz, and Wye Oak collectively blurred the lines between indie-rock and contemporary classical, they proved how fun it is to not only use all of the crayons in the box, but to color outside the lines.